by Maisie Brown and Donna Ladd

It was the middle of the summer, and the Westside Early Childhood Development Center was packed with little people. Children were in the halls; they were in the gym; they were in the classrooms. Adults were sprinkled in, directing and teaching curriculum such as Project Read that makes literacy the focus for childcare centers like Westside.

At Westside ECD on Wiggins Road in Subdivision 2, Mayor Tony Yarber and teacher stood in the hallway amid chatter and squeals of children of color, and explained the program. “The basic goals of the curriculum are to get the kids ready for the next level in whatever grade,” Johnson said. “This person moves here, this one moves there, and that one—you know, they move to each angle like in high school, junior high, or whatever. We prepare them for the next grade level, whatever they doing.”

The idea is to teach the kids to learn, and to retain it—as they move toward that all-important third-grade reading level that lays the groundwork for later success or failure. “So this summer, they been doing activity rituals at the library,” Johnson said. “… We’ve been reiterating what they learned all throughout the year, because graduation is coming up in July. So all our curriculum has been taken care of up until August, but we’ve been reiterating what they’ve already learned to keep them fresh.”

Yarber stopped the Fire Department bus at Westside to show what is possible, and needed, in communities throughout Jackson—a strong focus on early learning that a child can build on without straying off course. He knows that to prevent crime in the future, you need to go backward and prevent it early on, as well as build success-oriented young people.

In the gym, Yarber stopped and looked around with with a big grin as he stood in his tan suit and sneakers, pointing at one of the hoops. “This is where we came,” he said. “This was our babysitting service. This was our summer program, this was our after-school program, this was our weekend program. The gym was always open. Now we can’t have the gym open like that now.”

These days, many people believe that activities that keep young people busy, engaged in healthy activities and away from crime cost too much, or that it’s too dangerous to include the most at-risk young people. That means there are way too few Westside community centers to prevent crime.

‘Childhoods Marked by Loss, Violence and Neglect’

“We need more police officers.” “Lock ’em up and throw away the key.” “It’s the family’s fault.” “Bad kids can’t be reformed.”

Jackson, Miss., has suffered for years from too little study about the causes and solutions to crime here, especially among young people, with media coverage that tends to follow the “If it bleeds, it leads” tradition, but with little focus on how to actually prevent the crime, especially if the strategy doesn’t involve police. Often, it seems the only solution to violence here is to send in more police officers.

It has been difficult to get good information about what was happening inside the local criminal-justice system, or to find out how and if efforts to prevent crime are coordinated locally. But, suddenly, in 2016 that is changing. The BOTEC Analysis Corp. released a series of detailed reports in January 2016 about its study of local crime, including many interviews on the ground in Jackson with those caught up in the system. Then, in the spring, Mayor Tony Yarber announced his multi-agency City of Jackson Criminal Justice Report Taskforce, which delivered its official report to him on July 19 after what he called “heartbreaking violence” in the city.

The gist of both the state and the local efforts is that the criminal-justice system, and the coordination of preventative services, is lacking at best and broken at worst. “Given the trends in Jackson, we know that hundreds of young people now attending public schools will eventually become criminals (some of them violent felons) who will cause damage to their communities in a multitude of ways,” BOTEC’s Precursors of Crime in Jackson: Early Warning Indicators of Criminalitywarned

The good news is that the solutions, while daunting for a resource-strapped city, are known and available. BOTEC emphasized that the people most likely to commit crime are easy to find. “The population represented in these accounts is for the most part poor, with childhoods marked by loss, violence and neglect,” the “Precursors” report stated. It narrowed the target “treatment population” to 225 students in, or recently in, Jackson Public Schools who have dropped out or are chronically absent, and who have already been involved in the criminal-justice system as the young people to target in order to reverse the crime trends.

But how to target them?

‘Plagued with Boredom’

A key solution, BOTEC found, was getting at-risk young people 1) attached, 2) committed, 3) involved and 4) believing that rules and criminal laws work, are fair and apply to them.

Many juveniles in Jackson are at a high risk of crime, the report found, due to historic and systemic deficiencies in family structure—not necessarily because their parents don’t care or aren’t trying in the best way they know how. Jackson is 18th in the nation for its single parenthood rate, which is due to many factors, including parents going in and out of prison, often for drug crimes, or because the parents didn’t have strong parenting themselves—something many older Jacksonians attribute to the effect of the crack era on family strength because they can remember the time before it got so bad and when families in Jackson were stronger.

As a result, too many young people lack “social capital,” BOTEC found, which “thwarts educational achievement and access to conventional activities, job opportunities, and conventional peers and mentors. That leaves kids feeling unattached to adult figures. “Although laypeople generally focus on the parents’ role in controlling their children, the controlling dynamic runs in the opposite direction”: If they don’t care about their parents’ opinions, they are more likely to misbehave.

In Jackson, teenagers are “plagued with boredom,” BOTEC learned in its interviews. People complained that the closing of the local skating rink, movie theaters and much of the Metrocenter Mall left very little to occupy Jackson’s youth. As for existing youth programs, one corrections officer with children said, “I don’t know. It’s out there, but a lot of times you can’t afford it.” Young people often turn to crime and gangs because they “want to be a part of something.”

BOTEC identified “involvement” as a key way to replace delinquency. “Access to after-school and weekend sports, music, art, clubs and church activities can reduce the free time that might lead to mischief,” the report stated. “Care should be taken to prevent social class or stereotyping from restricting or prohibiting participation in pro-social activities.” It warned that “providers of youth activities sometimes deliberately exclude children perceived to be dangerous or likely to be a bad influence on other children.” That is, the young people who most need the involvement.

Interrupt the ‘Costly Criminal Trajectory’

BOTEC warns that a child’s “belief” in the importance of rules and laws is diminished when he or she is continually the victims of crime or see victimization in his or her community, “leading them to lose respect for the system.” That “victimization” can even include poor police interaction, abandoned houses left to rot, or trash or uncut tall grass in their neighborhoods. The child’s community, and thus he or she, are not cared about, these conditions tell young people.

The criminal-justice system must also be improved, BOTEC warned, because any touches with it, especially if dehumanizing, can increase the young person’s potential to commit more crime. That, too, means that law-enforcement officials and corrections officials need to treat them respectfully to improve legal facilities. “Don’t treat people like they’re beneath me. I would be respectful (then),” one young person told BOTEC.

BOTEC goes into great detail about the problems with much of Jackson’s discipline strategies, especially those pushing “zero-tolerance” responses, which are blamed for putting young people into a school-to-prison pipeline that is hard to escape. “Punishment-based school discipline methods should be avoided because they are not effective for reducing reduction or violence,” BOTEC stated bluntly. Such approaches disproportionately target young people of color and those with disabilities, and cost children who need it important instruction time.

Instead, BOTEC suggests restorative-justice responses, such as victim-offender mediation programs, teaching the results and damage of their actions, and helping them re-integrate into family life, school and community. It is vital, the report said, to establish alternative community programs that rehabilitate and redirect young people, instead of just disciplining them—which often leads to worse crime.

In addition, the company said, criminal-justice officials must embrace that they must do more than punish; they play a vital role in preventing crime and decreasing recidivism. “[I]t is imperative that authority figures understand that their behavior has the power to change future criminalities,” BOTEC warned. “To be sure, the concept is counter-intuitive.” That goes beyond how police act toward suspects; it’s also about judges: “what happens in that courtroom will have a lot to do with whether more crimes will occur.”

“People who were treated with respect were more supportive of the outcome, and more importantly, were more likely to obey the law in the future,” BOTEC reported. “It turns out that the strongest predictor of recidivism is a defendant’s attitude toward the judge and whether he felt that the judge treated him fairly and with respect.”

The BOTEC report suggested a variety of specific programs, including Functional Family Therapy, LifeSkills Training, Multisystemic Therapy, PATHS and The Incredible Years. It also acknowledged that Jackson is poor, but recommended that city residents find a way to offer the interventions and wraparound services due to the dangerous costs of not doing so. “Jackson and the surrounding areas are not just suffering from a crime-control perspective. They are also low on resources.” The more expensive programs, it said, could be targeted to the young people most likely to be on a “costly criminal trajectory ahead.” That is, those 225 young people who need outreach resources to meet them, at least so far.

Jackson being such a poor, neglected city, in fact, helps make it less safe. “Poverty contributes to crime and delinquency,” BOTEC reported, “and leads to the disproportionate incarceration of black men.” That incarceration, in turn, leads to worse crime, and the cycle continues until the community does more to stop it.

Time to Get Organized

Mayor Yarber’s task force seemed designed to deal with one of the biggest problems that BOTEC also found: the need to treat crime prevention in Jackson as a systemic problem in an organized way. That is, to figure out who needs what help and make sure they get it in order to stop so many from slipping through the net, and the violence that often results.

The July 19 city task-force report listed the following challenging to preventing crime in Jackson: negative perception of crime; repeat offenders victimizing the city; minimum community involvement and trust; lack of economic resources; public officials not working together; lack of early intervention services that identify potential offenders; lack of community organizations assisting with prevention; lack of officer training on mental health; and lack of parental guidance for juvenile offenders.

The “perception” issue is about much more than a simplistic argument over where crime exists. It does. The problem is when a community perceives, as BOTEC and the city task force found in Jackson, that it has no way to prevent that crime. The fact that BOTEC identified just 225 juveniles as the most likely to commit violence pushes back on a primary perception helped along by media coverage of crime—that much of Jackson is filled with dangerous people. It’s not true: Research shows that every city has a very small percentage of people who commit most of the crime, and most of their violence is committed against each other. And understanding that it’s a smaller number than many believe can help with a smart distribution of resources.

Still, that brings up a question that Yarber talked about a lot on his tour of Jackson with the Youth Media Project: organization and smart targeting of resources.

To prevent crime, his task force recommended, among other items, that the city “conduct focus groups on preventing crime with at-risk adolescents, parents of at-risk adolescents, and former felons who have changed their way of life” (also known as violence interrupters”); and “create a master database to be used to identify predictors of crime.”

The master database could be the key to crime prevention in Jackson, especially if it’s used to track and monitor progress and who needs the intervention the most. BOTEC recommends an “Early Warning and Intervention Management System that uses data to track and support students who are veering off the track to graduation.” That database could track the young people who are absent at least 10 percent of the time; who had committed two or more mild or serious behavior infractions; and is unable to read at grade level by the end of third grade, fails English or math in middle school; has a GPA of 2.0 or less; or who failed promotion to the 10th grade. In response, schools can work with those students on dropout prevention strategies, BOTEC said.

It also suggested that school employees could track relevant and specific data about their students that they could share with parents to identify needs for early intervention.

Click here for details about BOTEC prevention strategies and here to read Jackson task force’s final report. Video by Josh Wright. BOTEC research assistance by Maisie Brown.